UPI, June 23, 2003
By Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI Religion Editor
“Blessed be those who are being lied to”, read the headline of an alarming article by reformist Muslim scholar Bassam Tibi in the German weekly, Die Zeit. Syrian-born Tibi, who teaches political science at Goettingen University, labeled well-meaning Christians “inexcusably naïve” in their dealings with their Islamic interlocutors.
He also accused fellow Muslims as being “dishonest to the highest degree” in claiming that Sept. 11 had nothing to do with Islam. According to Tibi, the current Christian-Islamic dialogue is based on deception, merely producing wishful thinking in the West.
Not surprisingly, other Islamic scholars in the West are vigorously challenging Tibi. They particularly dislike his claim that in the eyes of most Muslims the “Islamization of the world” is still their religion’s goal. Muslims strive for the expansion of the “Dhar al-Islam” (the House of Islam) to the entire world, he says, and in this “house” Christians and Jews will live as “dhimmi” — tolerated “people of the Book,” but also discriminated against.
Jamal Barzinji, vice president of the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Va., accuses Tibi of being “25 to 30 years behind at the level of Muslim thought.” While granting that many of his coreligionists still hold this view pilloried by Tibi, Barzinji states, “The 10 or 15 top Muslim scholars in the world accept that it (the dhimmi status) is a mere remnant of the era of the Islamic empire. It is neither supported by the Koran nor by the Hadith (tradition).”
Tibi’s and Barzinji’s statements in interviews with United Press International show how far apart even reform-minded Islamic sages in the Western world tend to be — thinkers who agree, however, on a number of essential points: the affirmation of the pluralistic secular state, the rejection of theocracy and its closed-minded advocates, and the need for an honest dialogue with other religions, especially Christianity and Judaism.
But on the latter issue reformist scholars in the West who — in Tibi’s words — represent “no more than one or 2 percent of the world’s 1.5 million Muslims” tend to be at loggerheads. What do you discuss when you get together with pastors, priests and rabbis? Theology?
“No,” says Barzinji. What would be the point? Christians would stick to the Trinity, which Muslims and Jews could not accept. Much better to talk about common ethics. “There are hundreds of things we hold of tremendous value. The value of the family, values of state. If we discuss that, it brings us closer together. Then we appreciate each other’s religion.”
Sheikh Mohammed Mohammed Ali, an Iraqi Shiite thinker who has just returned to Baghdad from exile to promote the idea of a pluralistic secular state along these lines, agrees that the discourse between the monotheistic faiths should focus on such issues, which theologians call penultimate.
This does not satisfy Bruno Guiderdoni, a leading French cosmologist and Koran scholar, who definitely wants to introduce the ultimate issue — God — in these debates. As research director of the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, a leading light in the growing international dialogue between scientists and theologians, and a convert to Islam, Guideroni has an added interest in pressing for theological exchanges : science.
“Science is turning to religion and philosophy to make sense of our discoveries,” he tells UPI. How could he, a scientist, leave the God question out of interfaith encounters if the Koran informs him that whichever way he turns he sees the face of God?
He agrees with Tibi and Barzinji that Islam must take its place alongside other faiths in secular society. “The Muslim can’t play cavalier seul (lone rider),” he says. “Nations must be open to all cultures, lest Islam becomes an instrument of totalitarianism.”
He also agrees with Mohammed Mohammed Ali that there is a way to overcome the apparent absence of a separation between church and state in Islam. Ali sees the Muslim’s Koran-based obligation to faithfully fulfill a contract as a perfect instrument in this respect. “The contract in this case would be between the mosque and the state, with the mosque accepting the state’s pluralistic nature.”
Like Guiderdoni, Tibi insists that the partners in interfaith dialogue must be based on honesty. The guiding principle must “not be schmoozing but conflict prevention.” This presupposes, according to Tibi: maximum knowledge of the dialogue partners about each other, no censorship, no political correctness, no phony diplomacy and courtesy, but an ability to compromise.”
However, Tibi insists, there is one issue an which Westerners cannot compromise. Reminding this writer that some 17 million Muslims live in Western Europe and 8 million in the United States, he complains, “In Germany, France, and Britain the (radical) Islamists want to practice pure Islam under the rubric of ‘tolerance,’ which would make Christians second-rate believers.”
Tibi adamantly demands of Western societies to “challenge Muslims to say that they are no better than other believers.” In the Muslim world, only two nations adhere to this principle, according to Tibi — Turkey and Indonesia. “In Indonesia it is a constitutional doctrine that the five leading religions are equal.”
As a particularly egregious example of Muslim narrow-mindedness even in the West, Tibi cites the encounter between the Roman Catholic bishop of Hildesheim in Germany and an imam. The Muslim cleric gave the Christian prelate a Koran, which the latter gratefully accepted. Later, the bishop presented the imam with a Bible, which the Muslim scholar would not even touch.
“Thus the imam displayed a mindset that was pre-pluralistic and pre-modern,” says Tibi, “he obeyed the Koran, Surat 3, verse 19: “The religion before Allah is Islam (submission to his will).” But it is precisely at this point where the gap between Muslims stuck in the close-minded “desert mode” and their Western coreligionist becomes evident:
“Yes, religion before God means submission to his will. But that applies to a faithful Christian as well,” exclaims Barzinji, whose institute trains Muslim chaplains for the U.S. armed forces. “So by all means, let’s exchange Korans and Bibles so that we understand each other.”
Openness, Bruno Guiderdoni reminds this correspondent, has always served Islam well: “When Baghdad was open 1,000 years ago, it was the first city in the world; its coins were found as far away as China, Finland and Africa. That — and not chasing others away — was Islam’s true tradition to which we must return.”